How four U.S. snowboarders turned the Games on their head
Though hard-core boarding folk like to talk about the individuality of snowboarding and how antiestablishment the sport is, there was no wiping the grins off the faces of halfpipe riders Ross Powers, Danny Kass and J.J. Thomas as they huddled in a bear hug on the winner's podium after becoming the first U.S. trio to sweep a Winter Olympics event since the 1956 men's figure skating team.
So far in these Olympics, at least, snowboarding is America's sport. A day after U.S. rider Kelly Clark McTwist-ed her way to victory in the women's halfpipe event, the "U-S-A" chant was once again bouncing off the walls of Park City's Superpipe. Last week U.S. head coach Peter Foley predicted that his riders would do well even with the regimented scoring system of the Fédération Internationale de Ski, the organization appointed to oversee the sport when it landed in the Olympics four years ago. Though the heavily codified system hampers creativity, Foley said last week that "we can at least go in knowing what the judges require. And I think we've got it down pretty well."
Pretty well? Over the past two days U.S. riders put on a clinic at the Park City Mountain Resort. First there was the 18-year-old Clark, who soared as if filled with helium when she received a rare 9.2 (out of 10) amplitude score in the women's final on Sunday. Then Powers, 23, the 1998 bronze medalist and veteran of the men's group, followed up yesterday by exploding 15 feet over the lip of the pipe on the first of several monstrous airs. Then came Kass, 19, who nonchalantly pulled off a signature cab 1080 maneuver to take silver. Lastly, there was 20-year-old Thomas, who said he "just had fun" on the run that clinched the bronze.
Founded 37 years ago by a Michigan skier named Sherman Poppen, snowboarding is the country's fastest growing winter sport. Off the heroics of the last two days, however, the sport may yet catch its biggest air ever. "We don't have to be rebels right now," said Powers. "We can go a long way with this."
The Icewoman Cometh
Figure skater Sasha Cohen wasn't the only U.S. Olympian who passed a cell phone to President Bush during Friday's opening ceremonies. Sitting behind the President and Cohen was Krissy Wendell, the first-line center for the U.S. women's hockey team. After TV cameras turned away from Cohen, Wendell passed her phone to Bush, who chatted with Wendell's mother, Drenda, back in Brooklyn Park, Minn. "I was second," says Wendell, clearly not bothered at having been upstaged, "but this is my first Olympics."
Wendell, 20, isn't likely to take a backseat to anyone else here, poised as she is to lead the U.S. (which opens today against Germany at 11 a.m. at the E Center) to its second straight gold medal. The 5'6", 155-pound dervish led the national team in goals (37) and assists (35) last season. Before that, in two seasons at Park Center High in Brooklyn Park, she scored 219 goals and had 96 assists. Though Wendell is known as a scorer, U.S. coach Ben Smith says there's more to her game. "She's got great vision and poise with the puck," he says. "We get concerned that she doesn't shoot enough."
Canada, the world champion, is seeded first in the Olympic tournament, even though the U.S. has beaten its archrival eight times in a row coming into the Games. "Nobody's going to remember those games," says Wendell, "if we don't win the gold."
Chances are, though, everybody's going to remember Wendell long after these Games.
With yesterday's high-winds postponement, the women's Olympic downhill has evolved into a complex, above-the-neck battle. Tune in this morning; strongest mind wins.
First Picabo Street subtly taunted the Europeans, reminding them in a webcast that she already has won on the Snowbasin Wildflower course. Then she laid down the fastest run on the first training day. Euros such as Hilde Gerg all but conceded. "The Americans have skied so much on this course," Gerg said. Austria's Michaela Dorfmeister and Renate Goetschl were similarly glum. Were they sandbagging? Were the Americans pushing their buttons? "We've got the home court advantage, and we're using it," said Maine native Kirsten Clark.
On Sunday, Street was fast again, but five Europeans were faster. And they all came out of their tucks at the finish, as if to say, We could have gone even faster. Street was more than a second behind Goetschl.
In Sunday night's position draw, the top 15 seeded skiers (based on World Cup results) chose high start numbers. Dorfmeister took No. 25, Goetschl No. 20 and Italy's Isolde Kostner No. 14. Street, unseeded in the rankings at No. 16, did not get to choose and was hit with No. 2. The Euros thought that the snow would get faster as the day unfolded and that Street would be a glorified forerunner.
Then the winds came and with them a postponement until this morning at 10. Another draw. The favorites again chose high; Street this time got 26. Is this better than bib No. 2? Is it worse? Another night to wait, for the brain to boil slowly. The best have all played these games before, but one thing is clear: Nobody is more experienced at navigating chaos, or creating it, than Street.